In my experience working in a Skilled Nursing Facility, I found myself interested in the gifts people give to their loved ones who are dying. My years of observations have led to some strong opinions about what is appropriate to give to a dying person, and what is awkward and weird. Obviously, you want to give your loved one something they will cherish for however much time they have left, something that reminds them of your relationship and the good memories you have made together. This post is designed to caution you: before you give a gift you regret, consider its implications.
#1 Does your gift say, “You’ve had a good life, go ahead and let go?”
Though our first impulse is to share a gift full of memories, like a scrapbook or photo collage, that may be painful for our passing loved one. There can be a connotation of, “This was your life, Shirley, there are no other memories you’ll be making but these.” Please be cautious of how a gift like that will be perceived. People in the dying process often feel useless, helpless, and have low self-esteem. I had a patient who once told me, “I’m tired of seeing pictures of me as I used to be. I know my family doesn’t want to remember me as I am now—sickly and bed-ridden and hooked up to machines, but do they have to be so blatant about it?”
#2 Does your gift say, “Enjoy it while you still can, pops?”
Be wary of gifts that are indulgent, like chocolates and fine alcohol, because it may feel like a “last meal” to your loved one. It seems so considerate to get someone their favorite treat, or a luxury they always said they couldn’t afford, but it also implies that they better enjoy life while it lasts because they don’t have much longer to taste things. As a nurse in a Skilled Nursing Facility, I threw away expensive candies and fancy wines all the time because my patients were not interested in those gifts. They felt too final, too condescending—plus many people were on medication that made them feel nauseous constantly. Beware of edible offerings, as they may go to waste.
#3 Does your gift say, “You’ll never again leave this room, so let’s decorate?”
This is a tricky one. Once patients enter a Skilled Nursing Facility for something other than rehab, they often don’t leave the facility again. They know this already, they don’t need to be reminded by you. It may seem like a great idea to install some drapes, put up pictures of landscapes, bring in a noise machine of “ocean sounds,” but it can be inconsiderate. There’s nothing wrong with striving to make someone more comfortable, but don’t remind your dying loved one that they’ll never see beautiful vistas again, never hear the sounds of nature in this life. Homey touches imply that they’ll never again be home, and that’s not what they want to think about at this time.